Six months after he took office promising to transform The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Federation President Jay Sanderson is implementing changes he said will dramatically increase Federation’s efficacy in caring for those in need and building Jewish connection.
“When I took the job, one of the things that I knew was that we needed to tell our story more effectively, and what we’ve learned in the past six months is that we need a more effective story to tell,” Sanderson said.
“The model of the Federation as an umbrella is gone,” he said. “The community doesn’t need an umbrella. What the community needs is a hub, a center, and you can only be a center if you are appealing to everybody, which means you have to work with everybody.”
Last month, Sanderson presented to The Federation board a plan that would alter both how Federation raises money and how it invests the money it raises. The board is expected to vote on the restructuring later this month and meanwhile has expressed support for Sanderson’s direction.
Sanderson said he and Federation chairman Richard Sandler spent the last several months meeting with community leaders and members to identify what those outside and inside the organization believe Federation’s role can be.
Sanderson and Sandler concluded Federation should focus its resources and leverage on three priorities: caring for Jews in need, ensuring the Jewish future and engaging the wider community.
By strategizing around these three areas, Sanderson believes Federation can coordinate community efforts for greater impact and at the same time broaden Federation’s base of donors.
Engaging the community, for instance — through volunteerism, social justice advocacy and serving the wider Los Angeles and world community — is known to appeal particularly to the younger generation, and Sanderson said refocusing Federation on those efforts can bring people in.
At the same time, a major priority always has been helping Jews in need — in Los Angeles, Israel and around the world — through programs that address and fight poverty, serve the elderly and provide more resources for people with special needs.
Sanderson said he is particularly excited about the focus on ensuring the Jewish future, which will encompass all formal and informal education, create a deeper relationship with synagogues, nurture Israel-Diaspora relations and coordinate leadership development.
“One of the most pressing needs is the accessibility and affordability of Jewish life, and nobody is addressing this, no organization or individual,” he said. “Every conversation eventually comes to that. And we believe as a Federation that is something we should be focused on.”
Sanderson is also convening an Israel Advisory and Oversight Committee.
“They will work with me and Richard Sandler on formulating our philanthropic strategy in Israel, evaluating Israel’s needs and our work there in accordance with our strategic priorities,” Sanderson said. “The goal is to greatly enhance our deep commitment in Israel.”
To crystallize and achieve communal goals, Sanderson has already begun to convene different organizations with overlapping agendas to brainstorm about how the community can best use its resources.
“Two weeks ago, three agencies came in and said, ‘We want to partner with you.’ But all of them meant the same thing. They wanted us to give them money,” Sanderson said.
“In the past we’ve written a check and walked away, or been way too involved in some places. We need to end up in a place where people we fund see us as partners,” he said.
Rather than having organizations come before a Federation committee to sell a program, Federation will convene roundtables of people interested in common issues to devise broader strategies, he said.
“We’re one of the most serious investors in Birthright in the country, and we want to make sure the alumni’s Jewish life doesn’t end with their Birthright experience,” Sanderson said. “So we’re going to bring together all the organizations, traditional and nontraditional, to figure out how we can collaborate and partner. Instead of funding this or that program, we’re going to say ‘How can we partner in a meaningful way so we can create a communitywide effort to deal with this issue.’ ”
Instead of giving many small grants, Sanderson would like to see greater sums go to fewer organizations.
“In the past we’ve given money to hundreds of organizations, and it will definitely be fewer going forward,” Sanderson said. “We want to do more meaningful things in specific areas, and you can’t do meaningful work when you give everyone $10,000. We’ve made a lot of investments that have been positive, but they may not have moved the dial.”
He said that organizations will no longer be able to count on history as a guide for allocations.
“We don’t have special relationships. We have partnerships. If we can come to an understanding of what you are doing and of what the community needs and priorities are, we will start getting different kinds of requests,” Sanderson said.
Just two and half years ago, The Federation was reorganized under five pillars — Israel and overseas, community, leadership development, services for the vulnerable and Jewish education — a system fashioned by then-chairman Stanley Gold.
“I don’t think this is big change, but more of an evolution. The reason to go from five to three is to continue to focus the Federation on fewer activities, but do them better,” Gold said. “I haven’t made a secret of the fact that I think Federation is too big, almost amorphous. … When we’re doing a thousand things it’s hard to tell your story, and I think Jay is trying to focus us and be able to tell the story better.”
“What hasn’t happened as effectively as it should have with the pillars is integration. We had five pillars, but the pillars were not integrated, and people were not talking to each other,” Sanderson said. “The idea is that these three areas need to be fully integrated. In order for us to be effective at grant making and for this community to work, we can’t be so rigid. We can’t have silos.”
Sanderson also hopes to explore different funding calendars, so that organizations can apply for multiyear allocations, and he will set aside resources to fund organizations mid-cycle.
Operations will be streamlined and overhead reduced, and staff will be reorganized, though it is too soon to tell who or what might change. Susan Gotlib, The Federation’s executive vice president of campaign and finances, said she believes the mood in the building is more energized than worried.
“Change is never easy, but I think it can be exciting, and I believe Jay’s vision is very exciting and very welcome,” Gotlib said. “There’s an energy in the building that has reinvigorated the staff.”
Gotlib oversees the departments that raise money for Federation, and she has begun implementing Sanderson’s new model, which moves away from large events and toward personal relationships with donors on all levels of giving.
Using a model that has worked well in nonprofits around the country, Federation is integrating staff members from every department into the campaign efforts, training them to cultivate and solicit donors through personal relationships.
“If everyone in Federation is a passionate advocate for the work that they do, that will help us get the messages out to more people,” Sanderson said.
Gotlib said most staff members already casually tell people about what they do, and now that effort will be formalized through training and coordinated in a common database. In the past few months senior staff members have already been integrated into the campaign, and others staff members are following.
“Historically, people came to an event and made their gift,” Sanderson said. “That will be altered in that people in the campaign, as well as senior staff people, will have already had two or three meetings with donors before they go the event and in most cases will have already closed the gift. So the event will be more of a thank you than a reliance on getting 100 people in a room and getting them to make their gift.”
The staff is also gearing up for the centennial fund, a $100 million campaign to celebrate the Federation’s 100th anniversary in 2011. Gotlib said nearly half of that has already been raised, and Sanderson promises grand festivities, marketing and initiatives around the centennial.
Board chairman Sandler said he has witnessed the energy in the community since he became active in Federation a few years ago, and he is eager to build on it.
“There is a lot of passion in our community, a lot of caring about what we do and what is going on in the world,” Sandler said. “I think we have the forces in place right now to take those disparate organizations that are all trying to get to the same place and to do what Federation should do — help coordinate, convene and help people take those passions and channel them all in positive directions.”